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Saying goodbye: Grieving the loss of a pet

June 21, 2016

One day they’re greeting you at the door with their favourite toy hanging from their mouth, tail wagging and unconditional love shining from their eager eyes.

The next day . . . they’re gone, leaving you with a hole in your heart, a chasm of grief that can seem insurmountable and overwhelming.

While dealing with death is one of the tough realities of pet guardianship, it’s a topic that is often avoided because it can be uncomfortable to discuss.

“Grieving is an extremely personal and different experience for everyone,” says Laurel Horn, a registered clinical counsellor in the Lower Mainland who specializes in pet loss.

“A lot of people are really surprised by the strength of their reaction . . . when an animal is fully integrated as a member of the family, from my perspective, the grieving is no different than when grieving the loss of a human family member,” she says. “The depth of the grief depends on the depth of the bond, whether human or animal.”

Losing a pet hurts. It’s OK to grieve.

Cindy Soules, a BC SPCA board member and long-time SPCA volunteer, was devastated when her beloved cat Niki – one of the many shelter cats she has rescued over the years – passed away due to illness in June. Niki had been a beloved companion for 15 years.

“She was a gorgeous cat with so much personality. I missed her because she was so lively – she was always in every corner of the room,” Soules says. “I still miss her.”

She feels it is important to grieve and to cry for the loss of any pet, and keeps Niki’s cremated ashes in an urn on her bookcase. She also has Niki’s paw prints in ceramic and photographs she likes to revisit from time to time.

“I think you absolutely need to let yourself grieve – they’re a big part of your life – but you don’t want to get stuck there. I think it’s important to have some kind of healing ritual like a photo album or their ashes,” says Soules. “To me, even though losing them can be so hard, the emotional investment is worthwhile.”

Stuart Chase, a Vancouver-based professional and blogger, can relate. Chase, his wife and their two young children are currently grieving the loss of Nellie, a lovable and sometimes goofy dog they adopted from the BC SPCA Vancouver Branch seven years ago.

Whether chasing squirrels, barking at passers-by on the street or napping on the floor, Nellie was a huge part of their family, watching it grow from two to four.

“You’re so used to having that presence in the house and now she’s not here anymore,” Chase says. “A pet is a family member who never interacts with you with any words, yet there’s that huge, intense bond.”

 

He and his wife have chosen to be honest with their children, aged three and five, when they ask questions about their four-legged friend, because “Life’s honest. The death of a pet is a natural, normal process.”

Chase, like Soules, feels it’s important to grieve. His personal blog – stuland.blogspot.ca – proved therapeutic in helping work through the loss of his great friend; he suggests people talk it out, or, if they have creative talent, write a song, draw a picture or do something to help memorialize their pet.

He and his wife had to make the difficult decision to euthanize Nellie, who had been struggling with degenerative kidney failure for some time. Due to her illness she was experiencing excessive weight and hair loss, among many other symptoms.

BC SPCA chief animal health officer Jamie Lawson, a longtime veterinarian who has interacted with countless grieving pet guardians over the years, understands how painful that decision can be.

“It’s the most difficult decision you’ll ever make as a pet guardian,” he says, but notes that those who wait too long always regret it. “It’s not about the length of life. It’s about the quality of life.”

He says it is important for pet guardians to let themselves grieve and to seek help if the symptoms of grief are not diminishing over time.

“The grieving process is the same, whether for a pet or for a human being. You go through all the same stages.”

Both Soules and Chase note they’ll likely have more animals in the future – after an appropriate amount of time has passed. Because even though losing such a dear companion can be tough, the rewards that come before are “well worth it,” Chase says.

 

Memorializing your pet

  • Take lots of photos. Fill an album, make a collage, fill a multi-picture frame and/or carry photos in your wallet. Have a favourite photo transferred to a T-shirt, a mug, a clock, a button, etc.
  • Have a professional portrait, sketch or sculpture done of your departed friend — this can be done after your pet’s death from a photograph.
  • Write a poem, a story or a song about your pet
  • Create a work of art that reminds you of your pet (a drawing, a clay paw print, a needlework project)
  • Chronicle your pet’s life by keeping a journal
  • Write a letter to your deceased pet expressing the feelings you’re struggling with
  • Save pet tags and put them on a key ring
  • Plant a bush, shrub, tree or flowers near the location where your pet is buried, or in one of his favourite places
  • Collect their collar, leash, tags, bowls, blankets, toys, etc. and place them in a special area in honour of your pet
  • Keep baby teeth, whiskers, fur (from shaved areas) or ashes and place them in a locket
  • Have a plaque made to honour your pet and put it in a special place
  • Volunteer your time at a humane organization and/or help find homes for stray/unwanted pets

 

 

The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.